Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel, who oversees the Aleph Institute’s Project Shifra, said he did not set out to establish a safety net for Pittsburgh’s Orthodox Jewish community. Rather, “this was something that landed on my porch steps.”
The project began by simply “taking care of families who were in trouble,” Vogel said. “They were alone. They needed help.”
Project Shifra now offers Jewish families assistance in several areas, including employment, food security, housing stability, mental health and wellbeing, family dynamics and school supplies. Its volunteers work with various agencies and nonprofits like 412 Food Rescue, Jewish Family and Community Services and UPMC to support more than 70 families, including 300 children.
Vogel said Project Shifra’s story began unexpectedly, nearly two decades ago when Andi Fischhoff, then development director of Family Resources, a local child abuse prevention and treatment agency, realized there was a particular need to help Jewish families in distress.
“I had a friend in the Orthodox community who opened her home to women and children — women that were feeling threatened and unsafe in their home stayed there until they felt like their lives were more stable,” Fischhoff said.
A three-year grant from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation allowed Fischhoff to establish a program called Reach Out to Families to help Orthodox women in unstable domestic situations. A staff person at Family Resources would take the names of families who were referred — with their permission —by Fischhoff’s friend.
“The staff person would visit the homes of those families to see if they could offer any support,” Fischhoff said. “It was around Passover that year and our staff person would offer to help clean the house alongside the woman she was visiting. While working together, the women would talk about what was happening in their homes. It was a very non-threatening, open program.”
After building trust, some women would begin to refer neighbors who also needed help, Fischhoff said. “Referrals were made for therapy, and Women’s Center and Shelter was drawn into the project and began to offer kosher food.”
The Family Resources staff person soon realized that food insecurity also was an issue for many of the families, and enlisted the help of a local grocery store to distribute food in the community.
“Our staff person would load up her car and drive around to families and give them food,” Fischhoff said. “That’s how the Kosher Food Pantry started.”
The pantry, Vogel said, rented a site on Forward Avenue and eventually became the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry, run by JFCS. Various avenues of assistance started coming together somewhat organically. There was never one plan, but people learned along the way what was needed and what could work.
At the same time, the Aleph Institute worked with JFCS to assist and mentor families with legal issues. As the two organizations realized there was a need for more social services in the Orthodox Jewish community, Project Shifra was born. The project aimed to address domestic abuse, socio-economic issues, child abuse and child neglect — “things that people don’t talk about in the Orthodox world,” said Stefanie Small, director of counseling services at JFCS.
Beginning in 2017, Small said, JFCS provided a couple of case managers who worked out of both JFCS and the Aleph Institute. After the first year-and-a-half, a permanent case manager was put in place at Aleph with JFCS working in an advisory role. The case manager is paid for through Allegheny County’s Health and Human Services, according to Small.
It’s important to view the type of services Project Shifra provides holistically, Small stressed.
“Domestic violence often happens when wages are low, and families aren’t making ends meet, or they’re working paycheck to paycheck,” she said. “By helping people resolve the economic issues, the food insecurity issues, by working with the families on those entry level issues, they see you as trustworthy and might share more with you.”
Laura Ellman, a therapist who volunteers with the Aleph Institute and Project Shifra, said she doesn’t offer therapy — instead she helps families “resolve issues.”
“I act as a short-term, problem-solving, support person and referral source for clients,” Ellman said.
If continuing treatment seems necessary, Ellman said she refers her clients elsewhere.
Helene Kessler Burke, a resource specialist, also works with families through Project Shifra, helping connect them with services. She began her tenure in September, filling a spot that Sally Rafson held during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rafson said she connected families to agencies that could help, sometimes interacting with Rep. Dan Frankel’s office “to remedy something like unemployment benefits. That was a big thing in the beginning — how do you sign up for unemployment? How do you get checks the government was distributing?”
Through Project Shifra, Vogel also provides kosher food, which, he said costs “40% more than non-kosher food.”
He offers fresh fruit, salad and other food that families can pick up discreetly, and collaborates with 412 Food Rescue, which provides kosher food items that Project Shifra distributes to families.
Vogel’s wife, Nechami, also prepares food several times a week for families who are part of Project Shifra, regularly announcing what’s available in a WhatsApp group.
“It started off with me saying, ‘I have three extra portions of kugle, who wants it?’” Nechami Vogel said. “It’s evolved into something beautiful.”
She’s now preparing chicken, potatoes, salmon, eggplant dip, roasted vegetables, meat and potatoes, which families pick up from the Vogels’ porch — with staggered pick-up times to preserve privacy.
“This is community helping community,” Nechami Vogel said. “This is something I get to do and it’s one of my favorite parts of the week.”
Before the pandemic, Rabbi Vogel was ready to add another service to Project Shifra — an after-school food program for children, for which he secured a $100,000 grant from UPMC. When the effects of COVID-19 began to be felt, though, Vogel got permission from UPMC to distribute the funds to community members in need instead.
The rabbi said that Project Shifra is now ready to launch the after-school program, which will not only provide food, but also offer help with homework. The first step, though, is to find a location as well as volunteers.
Vogel has done a lot to strengthen the local Jewish community, Ellman said, and “people approach him with a whole variety of concerns.”
“Rabbi Vogel feels and sees things and then will give a voice to them,” she said. “He gives voice to those who don’t have a voice and he will say things about the community that other people won’t necessarily say. He tries to succeed with everyone he touches, and he feels their happiness when they succeed.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.